Clarice Lispector, An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures, trans. by Stefan Tobler (Penguin, April 2021)
The mathematician, economist, and philosopher Frank Ramsey wrote once that ‘what we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either’. This remark was a dig at his on-off friend and Cambridge colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein (a virtuosic whistler, known to perform whole symphonies while strolling down King’s Parade) had argued in his Tractatus that some things are fundamentally ‘unsayable’, and that in fact we shouldn’t even bother trying to say them. Ramsey felt that Wittgenstein was having his cake and eating it: by talking about the ‘unsayable’, classifying what kinds of entities and experiences might belong to such a category, and generally bringing the concept to attention, the Austrian philosopher wasn’t really playing by his own rules. Wittgenstein was whistling, while demanding that everyone else stay silent.
I bring up this minor philosophical squabble because of an odd parallel in Clarice Lispector’s An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures, published in April of this year in a new translation by Stefan Tobler. The protagonist of Lispector’s novel, Lóri, a primary school teacher in Campos, Brazil, is a woman ‘trying so hard to learn life’. The titular ‘apprenticeship’ is this process of ‘becoming a human being’, which, we’re told, is in fact ‘a human being’s most pressing need’. The obstacle in the way of Lóri really living is, at base, a lack of knowledge. Knowledge of the world, of others, and therefore of herself: the inscrutability of other minds results in a kind of vacuum-existence, where the human is unable to place herself, and so know herself, as a being in the world. For Lóri, this sense of being existentially adrift manifests as a terror of loving and being loved. She finds herself ‘fighting her own intense urge to come closer to the impossible part of another human being’, spending her days in a haze of depression and anguish.
Across the course of the novel, Lóri emerges from this anguish into a state of profound joy, even elevated into a ‘state of grace’ in an astonishing lyrical passage near the end. Her mentor and partner for her apprenticeship in life is Ulisses, a cryptic philosophy professor who spends most of his time drinking whiskey and writing incomprehensible poetry. Their dynamic is complex, even tortured. Ulisses is both waiting for Lóri to be ready to love him, and himself learning to let go of his need to be in control—a need fostered by the university environment in which he works. While a ‘philosophical novel’ in view of the questions it addresses, and in its careful, deeply serious processes of thought, An Apprenticeship has little time for academic hair-splitting. The tacit contention is that the tools of the academic philosopher are too clunky and abstract for dealing with the real facts of existence.
All human language, in fact, is too unwieldy for getting at the human condition. Early on in their strange relationship, Lóri writes Ulisses a letter describing night-time in Bern, where she
previously lived, and the silence which descends on the city in the dark. The silence becomes a symbol for all the unknowable mysteries of the world and its inhabitants: ‘One insoluble in the other. One beside the other, two things that do not see one another in the darkness’. Lóri’s letter is an attempt to express ‘the inexpressible silence’, and, oddly enough, she decides that ‘the thing that most resembled, in the realm of sound, the silence, was a flute’. Pure melody instead of words, which are always clumsy and inadequate. Like Wittgenstein’s whistling, the best we can do is to draw attention to the silence, and have faith that the person beside us, even if we can’t see them, feels it too.
In a more experimental novel, Agua Viva (1973), Lispector describes writing as an essentially gestural mode, rather than one which can ever hope to pin reality down:
[…] writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word—between the lines—takes the bait, something has been written. Once whatever is between the lines is caught, the word can be tossed away in relief. But that’s where the analogy ends: the non-word, taking the bait, incorporates it.
Words are here a kind of heuristic, acting as an index for something more profoundly elusive. That last sentence, though, signals something of a recuperation. If we do it right, the inexpressible silence might somehow find its way into our writing. The process has a counterintuitive temporality: instead of the idea preceding its articulation in language, language is the belated instrument with which we trawl our subconscious, delving for ideas to try to express. First we let down our word-tools, and if we’re lucky, they might bring up with them something of the unsayable.
Agua Viva’s fishing analogy recognises that writing is an involved activity, one that has to be viewed and performed precisely as an action. Writing and living don’t take place in separate spheres: the former is—just one—part of the tissue of experiences which make up the latter, experiences which take place in the here and now, the human present. In An Apprenticeship, the preference for experience as against abstract knowledge extends beyond hearing the mysterious flute. In one chapter, Lóri eats a pear from the market, and realises that ‘only someone who has eaten a succulent pear could understand her’. There’s no substitute for the thing itself. This is as true for love as it is for fruit. Much of Lóri’s and Ulisses’ courtship takes place in total silence, as they sit together by a pool or across a restaurant table, slowly learning to believe in each other’s existence. ‘Only another person who had experienced it would know what she was feeling, since almost everything that matters can’t be spoken of’.
These experiences slowly come to alleviate the awful pain of the unknowable and unsayable. Lóri shifts her approach: on the brink of another crisis, she makes a list of all the things she’s able to do, ranging from buying a new swimsuit to her capacity to simply ‘have a choice’. Once she finishes making the list, ‘she still didn’t know who she was, but she knew a great many things she could do’. The emphasis on doing as that which constitutes a self lies behind the various ‘pleasures’ of the title. Lóri’s education is largely in pleasure, in becoming a being capable of doing things, having things done to her, and enjoying them for what they are. The celebration of sensory pleasure is what suffuses the novel with a rich eroticism, even in its most abstract and knotty passages. Sex, of course, is the ultimate unsayable experience, only known in the doing. Suitably, the book ends with Lóri’s and Ulisses’ first night together.
Alongside the shift from knowing to doing, Lóri’s progress in the apprenticeship is figured through a recurring motif. In the early chapters of the book, there’s a terrifying aridity to Lispector’s descriptions. There isn’t even enough moisture for moisture to register as a possibility: ‘Heat with thirst would be bearable. But ah, the lack of thirst. There was nothing but lacks and absences’. Lóri at first survives in a desert of total human isolation, without a single ‘cloud of love crying’. However, as she begins to enter into the experience of being, both Lispector’s imagery and, more intangibly, her prose, begins to gain a certain liquidity, an iridescent, lambent quality. Lóri has a series of epiphanies by bodies of water. By the pool, she apprehends the ‘sublime in the trivial’, and shortly after, she immerses herself in the sea, rapturously drinking in its salty green water and recognising something she shares with it—both she and the sea are ‘unintelligible’. On the night when she finally decides to visit Ulisses’ home, she stands on her terrace in the pouring rain, feeling it ‘falling in harmony with her’. In the rain Lóri finds a colossal and relentless simplicity, a pure being. Without ‘gratitude or ingratitude’, the rain simply is. Rain is itself, fulfils itself, in doing, in raining: existence as verb. Lóri leaves her apartment soaked through, the stale desert of the novel’s opening pages finally blooming with life.
An Apprenticeship was published in 1968, although the first English translation appeared eighteen years later. The 1986 translation was published under the imprint of the University of Texas Press in Austin, and, as a result, these days it isn’t too readily or cheaply available. The inexpensive and stylish Penguin Modern Classics editions are currently vaunted as instigating a ‘revival’ of Lispector for English-speaking audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future her name appeared with increasing frequency in surveys of twentieth-century fiction. The other side of the coin, though, is the risk of English-speaking readers and critics construing Lispector in their own image. Lispector is a difficult and often annoying writer: her protagonists invariably take themselves amazingly seriously, and her prose style can veer wildly between coruscating and strangely leaden. These aspects ought, I think, to be understood as integral to her aims and practices, and not quickly labelled, like so many non-English writers’ stylistic choices, as markers of a quaint foreignness. It would be a shame if Lispector were canonized, or rather fetishized, as an exotic version of Virginia Woolf. We should treat the author as Ulisses learns to treat Lóri: as a complete and complex person, one whom we will never fully grasp, no matter how frustrating that is.
For Lispector isn’t, ultimately, writing for us. We are the beneficiaries of translation—hearing the flute, perhaps, at one remove. What’s especially interesting in this light is how the intrinsic issues pertaining to any act of translation bear directly on the novel itself. Lóri and Ulisses engage in an ‘incongruous dialogue’, often speaking in apparent non-sequiturs, yet finally and more deeply in tune with one another. The relative deprecation of words themselves, and the corresponding emphasis on the act of simply being with another, calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s influential analysis of translation. Benjamin wrote that ‘the task of
the translator consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original’: for him, translation was a dispositional art, one of finding out not what an author meant, but how she meant, and recreating this ‘way of meaning’ in a new language. Benjamin’s move isn’t too dissimilar to Lóri’s reparative list of things she can do. The emphasis on the how, on action and inclination rather than arid intellectualising, takes us out of the desert of pure semantics and into the realm of poetics—much harder to map, to be sure, but far more fertile territory.
Reading Tobler’s translation, then, feels a bit like a higher-order engagement with the novel’s thematics. We’re aware that we’re reading one author’s attempt to mean in the same way as another, and that this attempt will necessarily fall short of total recreation. But falling short is natural, and to strive after total and perspicacious interpretation is to miss the point. Understanding, the resolution of human unknowing, isn’t the aim: as Lóri observes, only dwelling in ‘not-understanding’ is what leads ‘to the infinite’. The great chain of productively not getting it began with Lispector herself. Her Author’s Note reads, ‘This book demanded a greater liberty than I was afraid to give. It is far above me. Humbly I tried to write it.’ Even a book of pleasures originates as something unsayable. If we listen closely to the inexpressible silence, we can hear the author, the translator, the reader, all whistling along together, trying to catch a harmony.
Artwork by Elizabeth Laurence